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Sam Lee - Sam Lee

  by Nick Dent-Robinson

published: 6 / 6 / 2014

Sam Lee - Sam Lee


Nick Dent-Robinson examines the career of young folk artist Sam Lee, whose songs are almost-forgetten traditional gypsy songs and who uses unusual instrumentation

Sam Lee spends many weeks out on the road seeking out traditional songs from gypsy and traveller communities. He visits caravan sites, sipping tea with matriarchs and patriarchs and learns the songs that have been passed down for generations but are now in danger of dying out. But Sam doesn't just hoard these almost-forgotten gems. He adds sheen to them by imaginatively re-arranging them and performing them with an array of interesting instruments, adding energy and a new dimension. And Sam's clear – almost crystalline - vocal delivery lends the songs new candour and emotional depth. I was invited to one of Sam's performances at the St John the Evangelist Church (now an arts centre) in Oxford. Frankly the thought of sitting through two hours of traditional folk music had not especially thrilled me. But I couldn't have been more wrong. The way Sam Lee breathed new life into this quite extraordinarily beautiful material was a revelation. Sam's introductions to each song - the stories of their discovery - were fascinating and clearly involving for the (quite large and very enthusiastic) audience. And his innovative instrumentation somehow gave each song new space to breathe. Sometimes a song would start with just Sam's voice backed by Francesca Terberg's softly played cello or by a single chord from Sam's own squeeze box and then more instruments would gradually join in until there was a rich, church-filling sound. But nothing was ever allowed to detract from a song's lyrics. Sometimes the music has a Balkan or Asian or African flavour – helped along by judicious use of zither, Jew's harp, brass, tribal percussion and Alice Barron's violin. The delivery is engagingly contemporary, and sometimes the experimental approach to percussion adds edge and danger as well as shine to songs that might have sounded too rustic or twee in the hands of more traditional performers. The audience seemed to have huge respect for Sam Lee... “Oxford audiences are always discerning,” Sam smiled afterwards, adding, “I love playing here”. The songs covered a range of themes from nightingales to sexually transmitted diseases but most are on the age old theme of love - which is why they sound so fresh and span the generations with such ease. Lately the BBC have been giving Sam Lee quite a bit of airplay and his performances are ever more popular. As a recent convert, I'd thoroughly recommend grabbing any chance to see Sam – and he deserves great credit for his determination to keep alive some wonderful musical material.

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Sam Lee - Sam Lee

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